Media, Empowerment and the ‘Sexualization of Culture’ Debates

Abstract

Claims about ‘empowerment’ increasingly animate debates about the ‘sexualization of culture’. This article responds to Lamb and Peterson’s (2011) attempts to open up and complicate the notion of ‘sexual empowerment’ as it is used in relation to adolescent girls. Drawing on contemporary research from the UK, New Zealand and elsewhere, the article seeks to promote a dialogue between media and communications research and more psychologically oriented scholarship. The paper makes four arguments. First it points to the need to rethink conceptualizations of the media, and processes of media influence. Secondly it raises critical questions about the notion of ‘media literacy’ which has increasingly taken on the status of panacea in debates about young people and ‘sexualization’. Thirdly it highlights the curious absence of considerations of power in debates about sexual empowerment, and argues for the need to think about sexualization in relation to class, ‘race’, sexuality and other axes of oppression. Finally, it raises critical questions about the utility of the notion of sexual empowerment, given its individualistic framing, the developmentalism implicit in its use, and the difficulties in identifying it in cultures in which ‘empowerment’ is used to sell everything from liquid detergents to breast augmentation surgery.

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Acknowledgements

I’m grateful to Nicola Gavey, Sue Jackson, Andrea Press and Jessica Ringrose for reading and commenting on this article. Thanks also to Irene Frieze and Susan Dittrich for their careful reading and editorial contributions. I’d like to express my appreciation to Chloe Preece for her calm presence and all her work during the IT storm that engulfed this paper.

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Correspondence to Rosalind Gill.

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Gill, R. Media, Empowerment and the ‘Sexualization of Culture’ Debates. Sex Roles 66, 736–745 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-0107-1

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Keywords

  • Sexualization
  • Empowerment
  • Young women
  • Media
  • Postfeminism